Most people chew gum to support oral hygiene, decrease stress, or try to make their jaw lines sharper. With regards to the side effects, it hasn’t been linked to any serious health problems, but some people can experience headaches, diarrhea, jaw pain, or tooth decay.
However, the potential positive or negative effects might not end here. There are a couple of studies that examined the connection between chewing gum and mental performance as well. Can this effortless activity really boost your memory, attention and other forms of cognition? Or will it do the exact opposite? Let’s examine it based on the available information.
UK psychologists: Chewing may improve memory and attention
In the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, researchers evaluated the memory-linked reaction times of 75 adults in 3 different groups. During the memory and attention tests, one third of them chewed a gum, one third only mimicked chewing movements, while the rest of them didn’t chew at all.
As far as the overall results are concerned, the gum-chewers had the best performance. Firstly, they scored 24 per cent higher than the other groups in immediate word recall. Secondly, they also outperformed everyone in delayed word remembrance by 36 per cent. Finally, they were also the most accurate on spatial working memory related tests.
The results are definitely interesting, however the researchers couldn’t precisely determine the mechanism by which chewing can boost brain function. With regards to the clarification, there are four theories:
- Brain activity in the hippocampus (a decisive part of the brain for memory) can increase due to chewing.
- Chewing may result in the release of insulin, and insulin receptors probably play a role in memory.
- When you chew your heat rate can go up, as a result more oxygen goes to your brain.
- The brain is a huge energy consumer, and the act of chewing tricks the stomach into thinking that it’s receiving nutrition
In simple terms, there are some reasonable arguments, however we can’t be perfectly sure about these statements. (1)
Chewing gum while studying?
After the English researchers published this paper, several other studies followed this topic.
In one particular experiment, forty colleague students prepared for a psychology test and only a part of the participants chewed gum during studying. The purpose of the investigation was to determine whether chewing-gum can increase alertness and improve memory. As far as the results are concerned, there were no significant differences in the alertness levels of the two groups. However, the gum chewers achieved much better results in the test. Consequently, the study suggests that chewing-gum improved learning and memory.
There was another very similar analysis, with the only difference in the subject which was Math related this time. In this case, the gum-chewers were more alert, but the statistically relevant difference only showed at the end of the studying period. Additionally, the chewer group made fewer mistakes and answered more questions correctly during the test.
In conclusion, chewing-gum might be useful during studying. (2)
What about tasks that require continuous monitoring?
The chewing gum related studies didn’t stop here. While the previous experiments focused on visual memory, The British Journal of Psychology examined the possible positive effects on audio tasks, that involved short-term memory recall. The purpose was to determine whether chewing gum can help maintain continuous concentration, especially during the later and more challenging phases.
Including both the chewer and non-chewer groups, there were 38 participants in total. During the assigned task, everybody had to listen to different lists of numbers from 1 to 9. The partakers had to detect as fast and accurately as possible the sequence of odd-even-odd numbers (e.g. 1-2-7).
Surprisingly, the non-chewer group had better results during the initial part of the task. However, with regards to the overall performance the gum chewers had the higher scores. Consequently, the chewing gum provided an additional brain boost mainly at the end of the task. With that being the case, the study suggest that it can be beneficial during assignments that require uninterrupted focus during a longer period of time. (3)
Researchers at Cardiff University don’t agree…
The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology published a study that claims the exact opposite of the above statements. Actually, they suggest that chewing-gum can damage short term memory.
During the experiment, they conducted three different tests with about forty students. First of all, the participants had to chew flavorless gum strenuously and recall the order of seven randomly told letters. After that, they had to find the missing component in different number lists. (e.g. 2 is missing from the following sequence: 78149365) Finally, they had to do the second test on more time, but this instant they had to tap their fingers instead of chewing a gum. Concluding the study, the researchers suggested that both gum chewing and tapping decreased the mental performance of the partakers.
They also say that in case of flavored gums these negative effects probably won’t occur. However, we all know that the taste of the gums only last for a couple of minutes. (4)
Bottom line: Chewing or not chewing?
There are more studies that suggest that chewing-gum can be beneficial, than researches that claim the opposite. However, the scientific evidence is still not strong enough to support this claim. There is no accurate explanation that can verify the exact mechanism by wich it would enhance memory, only theoretical assumptions. As a result, you shouldn’t except that a chewing gum will be the ultimate supporter when it comes to your study sessions. I would rather suggest that you drink a cup of matcha and eat a bowl of blueberries to assist your brain during learning, instead of chewing vigorously.
Nonetheless, since it’s a very controversial topic I’m very curious about your opinion, or better yet on your personal experience on this topic.
- Do you chew gum during studying, working or any kind of mentally challenging activities?
- Do you feel like it helps you to maintain alertness, focus and boost your brain?
- Or does it do the exact opposite?
- Maybe does it make absolutely no difference for you?
If you could share your own thoughts on the comments section, I would highly appreciate that!